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Michelle Rhee: How Obama -- or Romney -- should change education

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Michelle Rhee, founder and CEO of StudentsFirst (shown on NBC's "Meet the Press in July): "It's a new day for the Democratic Party. It's not a monolith that's just going to side with the teachers unions come what may."

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public schools, thinks that Democrats have entered a new phase in their relationship with teachers unions. And she thinks a push by Republicans for local control of education is unquestionably wrong.

A political – and often controversial – figure since she started as chancellor in 2007, Rhee will be spending this election season focused on state-level policies. She started her organization, StudentsFirst, to create a counterweight to union political pressure. The organization provides support to politicians of both parties who promise to work for statewide education reforms.

The new effort does not mean that Rhee, a Democrat, doesn’t have opinions about what’s happening on the federal stage. The Hechinger Report sat down with Rhee at the Democratic National Convention to find out what she thinks about President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and the direction her party is headed in.


Here are some highlights from the conversation:

On the Democrats’ “new day”:

Traditionally, Democrats have not gone against the teachers unions – and many still won’t, Rhee said. But the unions, which have often opposed things like the elimination of the first-in, last-out policy for teacher layoffs or merit pay, don’t hold the same political power they once did.

“It’s a new day for the Democratic Party,” Rhee said. “It’s not a monolith that’s just going to side with the teachers unions come what may.”

Rhee cited education resolutions that were passed unanimously by the U.S. Conference of Mayors this summer. They included supporting teacher evaluations that were 50 percent based on student performance and parent trigger laws -- which allow for a majority of parents at a failing school to take it over.

More from The Hechinger Report

“I think that tells you something,” Rhee said. Her husband, Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson, chairs the education committee for the conference. “We’ve got a lot of people saying we support unions, we support collective bargaining, we definitely support teachers, but a lot of these policies are things that have to be looked at and things that have to be changed.”

On Obama’s performance – and what should come next:

Rhee praised the president’s education initiatives, including Race to the Top, which awarded federal money to states that promised to undergo a variety of education policy changes.  But, she said, the concept shouldn’t necessarily stop there.

“There’s still a lot of other federal funding that there’s no accountability around,” she said. Title I funding, given to schools based on their low-income student enrollment, for instance, could be partly contingent on reforms, Rhee said.  For the 2012-2013 school year, Congress approved $14.5 billion for Title I.

“It would probably be a big challenge for [the Obama administration politically,” she said. “The Republicans on the Hill don’t want to fund another batch of Race to the Top dollars. You could continue that dynamic forward with those title dollars.”

On Romney’s education plans:

A central piece of Romney’s – and the Republican Party’s – education platform involves pushing control back down to the local level, something Rhee says she “100 percent” disagrees with.

“We had 14,000 school boards in this country making the decisions for a long time and that is why we ended up where we ended up,” Rhee said, noting that often school boards aren’t composed of educators. “I don’t think local folks know everything.”

“We should not say, well, that kids in Jackson, Miss., should be held accountable to different learning standards to the kids in Beverley Hills to the kids in Worcester, Mass.,” she said. “These children are not going to be competing for jobs against each other. They’re going to be competing for jobs against kids in India and China, and we’re going to have to have a sense of how each of these kids is doing.”

That’s not to say that the federal government should dictate everything about education, Rhee said. She supports both national curriculum standards and the creation of a common assessment. States that fall short should face interventions as laid out by the U.S. Department of Education.

“You have to have a balance,” she said. “The federal government should set very clear standards … There should be flexibility with how we’re going to get there.”

On vouchers:

One area where Rhee and Romney find some common ground is in his proposal to expand vouchers for low-income students. But she’s cautious about being overzealous about this support.

“I think where some Republicans tend to go is they think they can take something like vouchers and that’s just the end all, be all,” she said. “’Let’s just voucherize the system and then we’ll solve all the problems’ … That point of view is – I think – naïve. ”

Students First has identified 37 policies that they think states should adopt in order to improve schools. “I just don’t think you can choose one thing,” Rhee said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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